A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Sicario” 10.10.15

What can I say about Canadian born director Denis Villeneuve that hasn’t already been said. Anyone like me who has been following the director since his breakout film – 2010’s “Incendies”, which, was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2011 Oscars, knows that he is one of the most interesting movie auteurs currently in the business. Because of the success of that film, like with what happens with many foreign directors, Hollywood came a calling. Now a lot of the time, in fact more often than not, this is usually met with mixed results. Except what was different about Villeneuve is that he debuted his first English language film with 2013’s “Prisoners”. An immensely dark, emotionally powerful, and complex film with an all-star cast that included Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello, and Viola Davis. It was a major success and praised by critics worldwide but was only seen by a certain demographic of American audiences. Mainly the kinds like myself who enjoy films that mostly straddle the line between somewhat commercial but are more indie type fare. Many people I know skipped it over entirely. But it’s the one film that I’ve noticed comes out the most out of any other film I’ve seen in the past 3 years when I talk among people who have seen it. And it’s usually something like “why hasn’t everybody seen that film”? “Prisoners” introduced us to a new kind of filmmaker, one whose vision and style is more akin to David Fincher, but his darker works like “Se7en” (1995) and “Zodiac” (2007). In fact “Prisoners” was deemed “too dark” by a large demographic. But I think this had to do with the fact that it dealt with a very difficult subject for people to swallow – child abduction – which I’ve heard is every parents worst nightmare. But besides its dark subject matter and tone, it was and still is a master class in the art of filmmaking. Then came his second American film, “Enemy”, released in 2014, and also starring Jake Gyllenhaal (for those of you who ever hear me showering Gyllenhaal’s praises it’s because of his work in those two Villeneueve films). “Enemy”, much so even more than “Prisoners” was under seen and overlooked, mostly because of it’s incredibly strange mood and tone. It was Villenueve’s love letter to the great David Lynch, who is admittedly a very acquired taste and it had a very limited run in theatres because so few people saw it. I for one loved it, and like his other 2 aforementioned films prior, all 3 made my best of top 10 list in the respective years in which they were released in.

Villeneuve’s newest film, “Sicario”, is his first film in 2 years and also his first film since “Prisoners” to bode such an impressive cast. I remember hearing about it almost a year ago now when it was in production, and saw that Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin all had signed on to do it. I also learned in reading the production notes and summary that it was about the US/Mexican drug war in Juarez. Which, as a huge admirer of the crime drama and love for the director, I started counting down the days then until its release. And when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival back in May and competed as 1 of 5 films for the Palme d’Or (Cannes’ category for Best Picture), I was beside myself in anticipation for it and marked it as my #1 most anticipated film of the fall way back in May of this year.

“Sicario” (English for “hit man”) opens right off the bat with an incredibly intense and well executed sequence involving Emily Blunt’s character, Kate, a FBI agent and tactics expert who, with the rest of her team, raid and take down a drug cartel outside of Phoenix, Arizona. This is one of many harrowing scenes in the film that shows the urgency and imminent threat of death behind every corner of this particular line of work. Because of her stand out job and reputation as a tactics expert (she’s 5-0 in taking down the drug cartels she is assigned to, she is called on by the CIA, but really an elite confidential special tasks force unit, led by Matt (Josh Brolin – in as fine a form here as I’ve seen him in anything since “No Country For Old Men” (2007) ), a Department of Justice adviser that commissions Kate to take down one of the largest drug cartel/crime syndicates in the city of Juarez, Mexico. Kate reluctantly signs on, and she is partnered up with one of those elusive, quietly restrained, we have no idea what he’s doing here types named Alejandro (played by Benicio del Toro, easily the best part of the film and his finest work since well, ironically enough, 2000’s “Traffic”). We see the film through Kate’s eyes, and she quickly finds out that both the special unit that she works for, as does Del Toro’s character Alejandro, operate under their own set of rules and seem to understand that the drug war in Mexico is like night and day compared to the drug war that Kate is used to in the States, and in a pivotal sequence that I was so flabbergasted by, she learns what she’s in for as they enter Juarez for the first time (all I will say is both this, and the tunnel sequence, were two of the most expertly staged and riveting sequences we’ve since the bank robbery segment going all the way back to “Heat” (1995) ). Where the intensity and anxiety that was induced had me swallowing my tongue in my throat. As Kate and her team, along with the always present Alejandro, go on to take down these so-called cartels, Kate goes through a personal transformation as both her morals and beliefs are tested to the limits and she enters a world that one might call nightmarish.

“Sicario” is a dense, thought provoking, action packed thrill ride, which also winds up being director Villeneuve’s most straight forward and accessible film to date. Which to me was its biggest surprise. It totally defied almost every expectation I had of it. In while it’s congruent and feels very much like a Villenueve film. It also felt like his most restrained. Not so much in terms of its level of violence. It’s incredibly violent, and should be, as its subject matter practically demands for it to be (after all, it’s a film about taking down drug cartels). But in its ability to not alienate the moviegoer as some of his previous films have. And while it was dark and psychological like many of Villeneuve’s prior work. It gets more into the mind of the Kate character, as we literally see everything from her eyes and point of view. Blunt’s performance, much like Jessica Chastain’s in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012 – a film I drew a lot of comparisons to), she is thrown into a world that even despite her vast knowledge of, she really has no idea what she’s in for until she’s thrust straight into the heart of it. I also thought its treatment of the War on Drugs and the politics behind American intelligence in relation to the Mexican cartels themselves was handled rather deftly and two-sided. There wasn’t at any point within the film that I thought I was watching a “pro-American” depiction of the War on Drugs and I thought it showed a very equal representation of both parties involved, from the counter-intelligence officials to the cartel members themselves. Del Toro is outstanding as the quiet vigilante type, who we never quite know and are kept in secret as to why he’s commissioned for the job. Unlike Kate/Blunt’s character who is more of a “by the book” FBI agent who seems to live by a moral code and tries to upkeep everything she’s been trained to operate under, but only inside the States. This dichotomy between Kate/Blunt’s character and Alejandro’s/Del Toro’s characters, being on both sides of the law but operating under very different laws of their own, was handled with the utmost precision and was utterly compelling. The story arch and character development is on par with one of the greatest films I’ve seen out of the genre in as far back as I can remember. The cinematography (by the great Roger Deakins – 11 time Oscar nominee) is astonishing as is the film’s pulsating score, which left me and most of my movie group viewers on the edge of their seats. In closing, I think fans of Villeneuve’s previous work might be left feeling a little underwhelmed, but only because of what they’ve come to expect from the director. The film isn’t quite as dark or psychological as a fan of his might expect it to be (though don’t be fooled – the violence is consistent and packs a wallop). But it’s a rather straight-forward, though smart and intricate, take on the War on Drugs and the moral decisions and complexities all of those involved have to face. This is the finest “Drug War” movie since “Traffic” (2000), and it should easily earn a low spot on my top 10 or high on my Honorable Mentions list at this year’s end. Villeneueve is the newest foreign equivalent to something we have Stateside to the likes of David Fincher. And I personally can’t wait to see any and every film he puts out from this point forward in his career.

[B+]

Sicario – w/Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin

Saturday, Oct 10, 2015, 3:45 PM

Regal Lloyd Center 10 & IMAX
1510 NE Multnomah St Portland, OR

11 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

Synopsis: An idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) is assigned to work a dangerous stretch of the US-Mexico border by her superior officer (Josh Brolin). She’s exposed to the brutality of the Mexican drug cartel, and becomes partners with a defector from the cartel (Benicio Del Toro) who possesses keen knowledge about the organization. As she gets dee…

Check out this Meetup →

Advertisements

Two Trips To The Movies (One Back) – “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) 8.15.15 and “The End of the Tour” 8.16.15

This was my third consecutive weekend in a row where I visited the Portland Art Museum so I could catch yet another film in all seven films they are showing honoring one of the greatest American cinematic auteurs – Paul Thomas Anderson. I’ve always considered “Punch-Drunk Love” to be somewhat of a minor work in the filmography of this undeniably talented and incredibly influential writer/director’s. Maybe, because at the time of its release, it seemed like a rather odd shift in direction for the director who was coming off the powerhouses of his three previous works – 1995’s “Hard Eight” (a.k.a “Sydney), 1997’s “Boogie Nights”, and 1999’s “Magnolia” (the latter two films as mentioned in previous reviews are up there in my top 10 films of all time). So coming off one of the strongest one, two, three debut punches of almost any other director I can think of in history. To say they would be hard acts to follow would be a grave understatement. That, and the casting of the then still funny Adam Sandler as the lead, whose previous work had only been in comedy, seemed to be a rather strange casting choice. Anderson still to this day when reflecting back on the film says “it was and will be the only art film ever starring Adam Sandler”. And while I remember liking the movie when it initially came out I can’t necessarily say I loved it, especially in comparison to the two films that preceded it. Though I still went into it feeling an almost moral duty or obligation to see it as part of this ongoing retrospective of the director. Because I, as do many others, feel that it’s incredibly important to look at a director’s entire body of work. Especially with writer-directors that I admire and hold in such high regard as someone like Anderson.

The story itself revolves around Barry Egan (Adam Sandler). He’s a single man who his self-employed and owns his own business selling novelty items. He has seven rather overbearing sisters, who we’re introduced to via telephone at the beginning of the film. Barry is a lonely guy, who one night decided to call a phone sex line and is put on with a girl named “Georgia” (drawing up comparisons to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” (1993) ). He winds up getting himself caught up in a scam, and Georgia and her shady, sleazy business partner (played in a small part but a scene stealing Philip Seymour Hoffman). Barry is overwhelmed with stress as a result of it. All the while thinking he may have found a loophole in a Healthy Choice promotion that offers frequent flyer miles (lifted from a true life story). Just when Barry couldn’t possibly be any more down on his luck in walks the beautiful (and very talented) Emily Watson’s character, Lena. The two fall for one another under some rather strange circumstances and well, the rest of the picture more or less focuses on how two people, who couldn’t be more different from one another, and under strange circumstances, fall madly in love.

“Punch-Drunk Love” is certainly far from being Anderson’s best work. But even as a standalone film, it’s a uniquely strange, bizarre, and often times funny one. It’s also the first film in Anderson’s oeuvre where he begins to branch off from his previous style and work and shift into new forms of storytelling. Which in looking at a director’s body of work, I think is the one of the most important parts – the ability to keep things refreshing and original while staying true to your craft. I remember at the time of its release thinking that as much as I loved his two films prior, I wished that his next piece would be a little something different from the ensemble driven dramas that Anderson had mastered and built his career on up to that point. And boy this couldn’t be any different from anything he had done to date at that point. Sandler puts in a rather impressive performance as a man constantly on edge who mind you also has a very (and I mean very) bad temper mixed in with aggression problems (providing some of the film’s funniest and classic moments). It utilizes his comedic talents rather well but placing him in a role with a bit more of a dramatic turn. And surprisingly he pulls it off quite nicely. But what was striking to me this time around as how great of job Anderson does at shifting into unfamiliar terrain and pulls off a rather charming, heartfelt, and well polished love story with a lot of heart. It’s a minor work in the scope of Anderson’s seven films to date. But even despite its minor flaws (it never really “takes off”) it still is an impressive take on what we know to be the American romantic comedy.

[B]

The next film of the weekend was the newly released “The End Of The Tour” starring Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel. Despite my not being too particularly fond of the film’s two leads (I really only liked Eisenberg in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) and David Fincher’s “The Social Network). Segel I’ve liked in a handful of work like in his earlier TV series “Freaks and Geeks” (1999), “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2007), “I Love You Man” (2009) and still my favorite of his – “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” (2011). But after watching a trailer that piqued my interest mixed in with the based on a true life story that took place between Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Eisenberg) and famed author David Foster Wallace (Segel), who Lipsky gets put on assignment to interview the rather eccentric and immensely popular literary writer Wallace. It struck me as something that quickly caught my interest especially after seeing that it opened to rave reviews among critics, I thought it would be a great choice for my movie meetup group as it looked like something that had the potential to appeal to all tastes.

To expand on the brief synopsis of the film I hinted at above. We are first introduced to the up-and-coming, young, 30-year old Lipsky. A Rolling Stone journalist whose bogged down with covering stories he just doesn’t seem interested in and is looking for his big break. That big break comes when he is employed to cover an assignment where he would be invited into famed writer David Foster Wallace’s world for five days as he wraps up the end of his speaking tour advertising his new book that would go on to be his most popular and greatest literary achievement – ‘Infinite Jest’. Lipsky gets complete and total access to Wallace life and covers his day-to-day life through a series of candid interviews as they embark on the last few remaining stops on Wallace’s book tour. That’s essentially the film’s set up, as it becomes sort of “buddy road trip drama” that gives us insight into the world of one of the most famous and successful American authors of the 1990’s.

“The End of the Tour” sheds light on the literary world with what feels must have been a well researched story in recreating what it must have been like for its two central main characters during this short period in time. What I liked most about the picture was its take on the nature of celebrity, particularly with Wallace’s character, but as the journalist Lipsky spends more and more time with the beloved author. They begin to form a special kind of bond and friendship which comes across as totally natural and convincing, with each of its two leads taking up almost frame within the film, and their chemistry felt both relatable and authentic. Jason Segal puts on what’s probably his best real performance to date, as the bandana wearing, long-haired, unshaven author Wallace. It’s a rather impressive performance from an actor, who similarly to Adam Sandler in “Punch-Drunk Love”, shows that Segel can do drama and not just comedy like his cohort. It’s a believable and transformative role for Segel that shows he has quite a bit of range as a dramatic actor. Eisenberg on the other hand, feels out-of-place and miscast, and at least to me, plays the shaky, anxiety-ridden, unsure of himself character that he seems to become typecast in almost all of the work I’ve seen him in post-“Social Network”. Also, unlike Segel’s transformation into getting Wallace’s look and mannerisms down, Eisenberg looks exactly like he always does. And both my fellow movie meetup fans and I agreed and wondered, did he change anything outside of his usual persona and acting abilities to play this role? Well, it didn’t seem like it. Also, there’s some great in-depth, introspective talks that go on throughout the course of the film that play out almost like an homage to the great “Before Trilogy” films directed by Richard Linklater. Sure we get some great insight into the minds of the great writer and journalist, but at least to me, while I admired its exploration into them. It just felt a little too slight and somber throughout the entirety of its duration, sort of how I felt about Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” (which I liked but thought it to be very average). And that’s more or less similar to how I would up feeling about this film. For fans of literature who are familiar with author David Foster Wallace and his rise to fame and unwanted celebrity, you might like this film a bit more than I did. But despite the impressive turn by Segel, it wound up being a slightly above average dialogue driven talk fest with plenty of insight, but just not enough feeling.

[B-]

The End Of The Tour – Starring Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel

Sunday, Aug 16, 2015, 4:30 PM

Regal Fox Tower 10
846 Sw Park Ave Portland, OR

6 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

The story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Eisenberg) and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace (Segel), which took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace’s groundbreaking epic novel, ‘Infinite Jest.’ Co-starring Anna Chlumsky and Joan Cusack.

Check out this Meetup →

A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Ex Machina” 4.18.15

Ex Machina - Original UK Quad

I suppose it was just a matter of time before novelist turned screenwriter Alex Garland made his directorial debut. Having been in the business for fifteen years now Garland was first introduced to the film industry when his novel, “The Beach”, was adapted in 2000 by a little known guy named Danny Boyle. Boyle would hire Garland to write the screenplay for his next film, “28 Days Later” (2002), which basically was the screenplay and film that was solely responsible for every zombie movie or TV show to come after it. The two would collaborate again in 2007 in what’s still one of my favorite Science Fiction films of the aughts – “Sunshine” (2007), a mostly under-seen, overlooked, and under-appreciated effort except for many film critics and die-hard Sci Fi fans like myself. A mere three years later, and Garland would once again pen the screenplay for another innovative music video turned feature film director, Mark Romanek, in 2010’s brilliant “Never Let Me Go”. Garland has mostly remained relatively dormant for the past five years or so, except for writing the screenplay for the mostly forgettable “Dredd” remake (2012). When this film first caught my attention it was because it was Garland’s first foray into writing and directing. And well, given his track record up to this point in his career as a screenwriter, I quickly took note of it and put it on my list of upcoming movies to see. Especially because after having seen the trailer I thought to myself it could be something that had the potential to be a new and fresh entry into the Sci Fi genre. Which in my opinion, next to maybe horror, is the single most difficult genre to create something original because like horror, often times the genre has a tendency to rehash something that we’ve already seen. That and as anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am becoming more and more of an Oscar Isaac fan, who by the looks of it, seemed to play a pretty considerable role in the film.

The movie begins by introducing to a computer programmer, one of those brainy types who writes code named Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson from last year’s “Frank”, also coincidentally Brendan Gleeson’s son, who starred in “28 Days Later”). He’s shown in front of a computer at work, and the director sets up a nice establishing segment where his co-workers are muted in the background, but through a series of text messages and them circling in around him clapping, we find out that he’s won something big. That something is a week long trip out to the very exclusive home (or compound if you want to call it that) of the once 13-year old scientific prodigy who’s now somewhere in his forties. A CEO named Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac) who wants him to participate in an experiment shrouded in secrecy. After a long helicopter trip over a beautiful lavish mountain range (“wow these mountains are beautiful” Caleb asks the helicopter pilot who responds “yes Nathan has done very well for himself”) which tips off the audience to how wealthy and powerful of a man Nathan really is (a guy with the prominence of say a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates) Caleb soon after is dropped off in the middle of nowhere and once at the compound, he meets the rather eccentric and reclusive Nathan, who explains to Caleb he will be involved in a series of tests with a specially designed AI (artificial intelligence) android specimen he’s created named “Ava” to conduct a “Turing test” (interestingly enough a film was made just last year about how the Turing tests came to be in “The Imitation Game” where Benedict Caumberbatch played Alan Turing, the man ultimately responsible for their creation). These tests measure a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable, from that of a human (a theme clearly inspired by the granddaddy of all Science Fiction films – Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) ). Through a series of “sessions” (as the title cards display on the screen) both Caleb and Ava form a friendship that at first seems solely for experimental purposes, but one that develops into something greater as the series of sessions progress. This is the central core of the story and as it develops, the plot takes a number of twists and turns particularly as Ava’s creator Nathan gets more and more involved in how he wants things, and tries to make every effort to ensure, that his “experiment” has the desired effect he seems to set out to achieve. With both Caleb and Ava have agendas of their own.

This was a deeply thought-provoking and heady Science Fiction film, chock full of existential ideas and themes that had my “thinking cap/light switch on” from its first frame to its final one. Garland proves here that he is just a strong a director as he is a writer. Filming the movie (with the exception of the very beginning, the entire film takes place at Nathan’s compound) from the inside looking out. He does an excellent job at reeling the audience in to a very specific type of environment. The compound is filmed exquisitely using an impeccable lighting design of mostly neon lit colors along with a sterile environment, an environment that looks like something only someone like Steven Soderbergh could pull off, with both the framing and film composition looking extravagant. Much should be said for the breathtakingly believable android Ava played by Alicia Vikander. If people thought Spike Jonze did an excellent job at recreating a robot’s “voice” to sound believable in 2013’s “Her”. This movie one ups it and shows an android who in the flesh, is the most realistic looking adroid we’ve seen since films like “Blade Runner” and more recently, Steven Spielberg’s take on AI in “Artificial Intelligence” (2001). Gleeson shines here as his relationship with Ava comes across acharmingly authentic and thoroughly engaging. A relationship that was so convincing one might only imagine their own selves taking the same course if they were put in Caleb’s shoes. Ava is so human-like mentally, physically, and emotionally that the film ponders the question of whether or not a machine can be made to be more real than that of a human (drawing similarities to the computer program HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) ). Oscar Isaac puts in yet another great performance as what I referred to after the film as the “mad scientist”. He shows many colors and shades of his character as the film progresses, and through the audience’s constant second guessing of his motivations and agendas is a big compliment to the way in which his character is written. The film also contains a deeply haunting and atmospheric score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury of the famed trip-hop group Portishead that blends itself in perfectly with the picture. This being their first foray into feature film composition. The music was just as impressive as anything Atticus Ross or Trent Reznor have done with the last three David Fincher films.

This wound up being a very rewarding entry into the Science Fiction genre which in my opinion, was the most well constructed and perfectly executed Sci Fi film since Duncan Jones’ “Moon” (2009). As the film takes on many different shapes and forms throughout combining elements of everything from heady Science Fiction, to full-blown thriller, teetering at times in borderline psychological horror. Which is accessible enough to please both indie/art house and commercial audiences alike. This marks a monumental directorial debut for Alex Garland, who I can’t wait to see what he has up his sleeve next, which also happens to be the best film I’ve seen so far this year that should and will be talked about for years to come.

[A-]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Nightcrawler” 12.7.14

This was the second to last of my crop of movies to see to wrap up the end of 2014. The other being Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” which is scheduled to be released here in Portland later this month. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” doesn’t open here until January, so unfortunately it’s just going to miss the cut and therefore won’t be considered as a 2014 release even though it’s already opened in NY and L.A. I had heard a lot of buzz surrounding this one, and like I do with pretty much every movie I know I’m going to see these days, especially those in the theater, I shut myself off from talking to anyone who’s seen it, didn’t watch any trailers, nor did I read any reviews. As I’ve found this new approach walking into a movie with a total clean slate has made my moviegoing experiences a lot more exciting since I implemented it at the start of the year. To be truthfully honest I saw this film merely because of genre and the few blurbs I had stumbled upon unintentionally about it. But even more importantly because it was a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Who since 2009’s “Prince of Persia” seems to be doing everything right in terms of picking projects that he seems to find interesting, seemingly without a care in the world for what’s going to draw the people to the box office or what’s going to earn him the most money. In fact, I am so impressed by Gyllenhaal’s career trajectory since then that he has slowly inched his way into my top 5 favorite actors currently working in the film business today. He has put out one string of good films after another over the past few years. Which started in 2011 with Duncan Jones’ (“Moon”) brainy Sci Fi trip “Source Code”, then David Ayer’s (“Fury”) 2012 “End of Watch”, and the back-to-back films he’s done with French director Denis Villenueve in last year’s “Prisoners” and this year’s “Enemy”. The latter two performances which I considered to be right up there with Gyllenhaal’s best, if merely from an acting stand point. Sure he’s done some other great films like Richard Kelly’s cult hit “Donnie Darko” (2001) and David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007). Those are certainly great films in their own respect. However up until this point in his career never has he been so consistently good. I personally thought he was nabbed of a Best Actor nomination last year for “Prisoners”. As I truly thought it was one of his strongest, most compelling performances to date. Then after having seen “Enemy” earlier this year and loving both the film and his performance as much as I did, I vowed to myself that I would pretty much see anything that he’s attached to from this point forward in his career. Then came the second Gyllenhaal film this year, “Nightcrawler”, a film that once again looked like it had the potential to be yet another great film from an actor who over the last few years has proven that you really can’t go wrong with seeing whatever this undeniably gifted young actor does next. It is because of my strong affinity for Gyllenhaal as an actor that I decided to catch this one while it was still playing in theaters, as I heard a very strong response to both the film itself and his performance.

We are first introduced to Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou, a man living in L.A. who is desperate for a job and is willing to take just about anything he can get. He seems to have zero qualifications or any kind of prior job experience but proclaims that he’s a “hard worker” to the employers he tries to persuade to give him a job, any job, at the start of the film. He seems to have no family, girlfriend, kids, or anything that would link him to the rest of the world. Except for the fact that he’s smart, persistent, and has a considerable amount of drive and ambition. One night he stumbles upon an accident and has a sort of epiphany as he sees the race of the reporters desperate to cover whatever story happens to be the biggest one of the night. Gyllenhaal’s Lou then decides that this is his calling and what he wants to do with his life. So he grabs a cheap camera and police scanner and begins to crack the codes of police dispatchers calls in hopes that he will be the first one in line to capture footage of whatever break out news story happens to be going on any given night. It is here that he meets his adversary in the form of Bill Paxton, a fellow freelance reporter who is the man who seems to have broken down this method of beating the cops to the scene of the crime or accident, all in hopes of capturing whatever footage he can get so that he can be the first to sell it to whichever news station will pay him the most for it. On one unsuspecting evening he documents a grisly scene of a murder, and gets his first taste of the potential of his newfound endeavor through a local news station whose director, played by Rene Russo, gives him his first paycheck and the promise of much more money to come if he sticks with it. Lou then begins to slowly fine tune his craft with the addition of a new camera, fire-red mustang, and an intern whom he hires on to help him become faster and more proficient in his almost addictive-like quest to get to the scene of the crime first, and over time he succeeds at doing so. And is in turn employed full-time by Rene Russo’s news station to bring them a story, night after night, which in turn increases his drive and ambition to be the absolute best freelance reporter in all of L.A. Then one night, he stumbles upon a scene of extreme violence and its aftermath, a pivotal scene that goes on to drive the rest of the film and the events that unfold after it.

This was a spectacular film that exceeded my moderate to high expectations. Throughout it made me think of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” (2011) which I found myself drawing a lot of comparisons to and who ironically enough I came to find after was produced by the same team as it. Mainly because I felt like part of the beauty of it lay in its subtext. Some people will view the film, much like “Drive”, as a straight ahead action-thriller. Which is fine and all. But underneath it all in its subtext I thought it was trying to say something much deeper than what appeared to be at its surface. Oddly enough I looked at it as something similar to that of “Scarface”. About having the drive and ambition in the pursuit of the American dream and wanting to be at the very top by whatever means necessary. Every decision Gyllenahaal’s character does seems to be driven by Capitalist thought. He becomes so incredibly obsessed with the prospect of delivering the next best news story that he’ll do just about whatever it takes even at the expense of those of others around him. Gyllenhaal once again amazes with his spellbinding performance in which he totally immerses himself into his character and puts on one hell of a show. His sunken face (apparently he lost a considerable amount of weight for this film) and beady eyes that look like they’re going to pop out of his head make him look like some kind of insect and acts as one of the many ways of reading into the film’s title. But besides the transformative piece he also really brings a certain depth and range to his character that border lines on someone with a serious mental illness who falls so deep into his craft that he begins to flirt with insanity. A character that brings to mind the late great Robin Williams in 2002’s “One Hour Photo” or better yet even, Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle in Martin Scorcese’s masterpiece – “Taxi Driver” (1976). He delivers thoughts, ruminations, and words at a mile a minute and comes across as a likely candidate for someone with Autism or Asburger’s Syndrome. It’s a piece of method acting that truly shows his incredible range as an actor. The story itself is utterly and completely captivating from start to finish and has a great sense of pacing. As while on his quest to capture the best news stories the film becomes highly riveting, tense, and psychological. Not to mention that it seems incredibly dark for a studio film (much like “Prisoners” was). His physical and internal transformation is simply an awe to watch. As he starts off as a nobody and brings himself on some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy to uncover the truth, he becomes almost blinded by the world around him and loses his sense of self and identity, turning into some kind of monster. The supporting turns by both Bill Paxton and Rene Russo were also perfectly cast, and help anchor Gyllenhaal’s astonishing performance. This is a film that worked for me on a lot of levels, but mostly in the “can’t look away” turn by Gyllenhaal, that should garner him at least a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, if not an Academy Award nomination. Like “Enemy”, this is the second Jake Gyllenhaal film to totally blow me away this year, and is also his second film to likely wind up making my top 10 best films of 2014. This film both shook and rattled me and had me thinking long after the credits rolled. Which in the humble opinion of this writer, only the best ones seem to do.

[that sweet spot between a B+ and A-]

A Trip To The Movies – “Citizenfour” 11.22.14

I chose to take a trip out to the movies to see this for a number of different reasons. First, was that it was executive produced by Steven Soderbergh. Which who anybody that knows me well enough knows that anything he gives his stamp of approval on is an automatic must see. Second, was the aggregate score ratings that I was seeing on websites like imdb.com and metacritic.com. What struck me about this film in particular was that usually when a film is weeks away from its release, its aggregate score is much higher only to then drop considerably a few days prior when it’s screened for all critics. In the case of this film I saw that scores were actually rising weeks after its release. Which is both unusual and incredibly rare, that I figured what I was witnessing here was a film that was slowly building an audience by mere word of mouth. At that point I decided to go ahead and make plans to see it. Lastly, I had noticed that Oscar winning composers Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails and British composer Atticus Ross, fresh off their string of David Fincher films (“The Social Network”, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, and this year’s “Gone Girl”), wrote the music for it. I thought that maybe I was on to something truly special here. But with something that was slightly shrouded in mystery since like I do with most films, including documentaries, I rely solely on who the director is for feature films and aggregate scores/ratings for documentaries. Not really knowing anything about it, even the topic or subject that which it chose to focus on, this was yet another film that I pretty much walked into with a blank slate hoping that I would be surprised.

The films opens with Glenn Greenwald, a British journalist for The Guardian, who’s comminicating with a man via the internet in a number of emails about potentially covering a story about one of the biggest news scandals of the 21st century which he hopes to expose. We then meet the second and single most integral person in covering the story, documentarian filmmaker Laura Poitras. After a series of instructions on where to find said source who hopes to expose the story both Poitras and Greenwald wind up in Hong Kong. It is there that we meet 29-year old Edward Snowden, a former NSA (National Security Agency) intelligence officer for the United States who has fled with numerous files of information showing the government’s role in breaking the law by setting up illegal wiretaps on almost every big telecommunication conglomerate in the United States. Which also happens to be one of the biggest human rights and civil liberties violations in the history of this country. Certainly that of the 21st century. Through a series of interviews in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room where he is hiding Poitras, Greenwald, and another journalist strategically plan out how they are going to leak this information to the rest of the world. As each day passes more and more information is collected, as is with each interview we listen to Snowden reveals more and more information about the shocking abuses of power of national security. While preparing himself for the inevitable witch hunt that is sure to follow once the information comes out.

This is an extraordinary documentary that resembles just as much of a non-fiction feature film that it does a conventional documentary. What I mean by that it seems to change the criteria of what we expect from the documentary format as a medium and includes elements that seem like they are straight out of a feature film. Unlike a conventional documentary, we are presented with evidence based facts coming straight from the subject himself, as it plays itself out in real time. Usually more conventional types of documentaries either talk about the subject post-humously with a serious of interviews from people who either know or knew about them thereby creating an agenda or a subjective opinion that sometimes is forced upon the viewer. This documentary is entirely different than almost any one that I’ve seen because we are shown the trajectory of the leaking of information exactly as it happened. That and we are given complete access to the whole proceeding, as the obviously very talented director Poitras is one of 2 sources; Greenwald being the other, who spend every hour of every day documenting the incredibly brilliant 29-year old Snowden. Something that is so rarely seen in documentaries. Particularly political ones that has this much riding on the line. This leak of information about illegal abuses of power by the NSA and other counterintelligence agencies is baffling. Because we are given unprecendented access to all of the information straight from the source we start to really understand how huge the whole thing really is. The interviews and access to information that Snowden provides us with is very well presented and pre-calculated. As the story unfolds and the information is leaked, the situation gets more and more desperate for Snowden, as almost every counterintelligemnce agency from America to Japan starts to target him as the main suspect, and pretty soon neither the director Poitras or the journalist Greenwald are allowed contact with him. As the entire counterintelligence world starts to slowly inch closer and closer to locating him. You yourself as an audience viewer experience the same (well, almost) level of fear and paranoia that everybody who’s involved with the whistleblower seems to be experiencing. Which is the film’s greatest strength, to put you right there in real time and acts as an almost emotional rollercoaster as the events before you take place. There were times that I was so engaged, with my mind’s light switch on tracing the story as it unfolded, that I literally had a physical response to it in that I felt my body temperature getting colder and just about every hair on my body raise up. Like something out of a psychological thriller or borderline horror movie. The last third of the film where the news starts to go viral and the tension surmounts to such a high level was probably the first time I had feelings similar to that since Soderbergh’s “Contagion” (2011). Another film that explores how fast something can spread (in the case of that film a disease) since we are all wired in technologically on a global scale. Regardless of how you felt about Snowden at the time this information was exposed, or are like me and were a Snowden “novice” before seeing the film. This is an essential piece of cinema that practically reinvents the documentary format, and bridges the gap between that of it and feature film. All the while presenting us with one of the most shocking revelations of the violations of civil liberties that’s taken place in post-9/11 America. This is a brilliant documentary that is one of the year’s best behind the Steve James Roger Ebert documentary “Life Itself” and is sure to please both feature film moviegoers and fans of documentaries alike. This is one that is sure to pick up a Best Documentary nomination at the 2015 Oscars. See it and I can assure you with no doubt in my mind that you won’t be left disappointed.

[A-]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Interstellar’ 11.8.14

In what I considered to be the second biggest movie release of the Oscar season behind the already released David Fincher’s “Gone Girl”, the just released “Birdman” by director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” (released next week), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming “Inherent Vice”. Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” was, well, just like any other Christopher Nolan film in terms of my anticipation for it which was very high. I remember when thinking back to the build up and buzz of his 2010 mind bender “Inception” and seeing a preview for it during the 2009 Oscar season; a full 7 months before its release date, and from that point forward I tracked its every move. From filming, to post-production, to the months that Nolan’s films get marketed (due probably because he is the most successful director post-2000 and one of the only directors (truth) that doesn’t need to pitch a project to a studio. His films are so profitable they will just write him a blank check right then and there on the spot). But what’s even more important to point out, is that not only is Nolan the most bankable director currently working in the business, but he’s also the most artistically inclined commercial director in the business (think early to mid era Steven Spielberg). His films, even in being big budget studio films, are always something much more. Films that are always challenging comes to mind if describing a Christopher Nolan film. He basically reinvented the indie landscape with his 2000 game changer “Memento”. A film that was just as influential on the independent film movement of the nineties than was say Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1995). His follow up, the surprisingly mostly under seen and overlooked 2002 film “Insomnia”, which was a bona fide crime thriller that was equal parts mystery and suspense. Then came his widely successful Batman/Dark Knight trilogy which were and still are solely responsible for changing the superhero/comic book landscape. What’s so amazing about those films is they set the bar so unbelievably high for every superhero movie to follow. There’s a reason why the sheer quality of the genre became better after the Nolan Batman films. It’s because everyone who took a stab at the genre following it used it as a template in trying to hopefully make a film like it. That and he made the trilogy dark and challenging. Something that had been missing from the genre in the past. Enter 2010 and Nolan is back with a film that he somehow managed to squeeze in-between the second and third Dark Knight installments, “Inception”, which as mentioned above, was a mind bender that proved that Nolan could make genre films that were just as successful outside of the superhero/comic book box, and once again, make something for the audience that was both thought provoking and challenging. A trademark of all of Nolan’s work. Skip 2 years after his last Batman installment, in which he chose to hang the towel after, and we have a new Nolan film. One that promises to bring us to mankind’s next step in the universe, while also hinting that it could be our last.

“Interstellar” first introduces us to Matthew McConaughey’s (in yet another great performance) character, Cooper, a former engineer and test pilot who now is a widowed family man with two young children and who lives on a plot of land in rural America as a farmer who tends to his crops as a means of survival. A wind/sand storm hits, and within it there’s a revelation to both Cooper and his family that the dust that remains on the floor in its aftermath presents them with some sort of gravitational irregularity because of the pattern of its arrangement. This leads them to a NASA compound run by Michael Caine’s character. He talks of some kind of wormhole that is circling around Saturn, and states that the only way mankind is going to be saved by the growing weather and agricultural nightmare that has befallen on them is to travel through this wormhole to set up new worlds in other galaxies. As life on earth as we currently know it won’t survive much longer. Cooper meets Caine’s daughter (played by the not always consistent but serviceable Anne Hathaway). Cooper is in charge to lead this new mission, while being employed to carry out another mission to find out what happened to another spacecraft who made an attempt at their same mission to travel through the wormhole many years earlier and merely vanished in space. Cooper takes on the mission, much to the chagrin of his daughter, knowing that it might be the single most important thing to help save mankind. Both he, Hathaway’s character, a geographer played by the under appreciated and underused Wes Bentley, a physicist, and 2 robots who’s names I can’t remember at the moment, but who both play an integral role, as they embark on their space adventure.

The film is a bit of an over-stuffed hodgepodge of different ideas and existential themes that are packed within its almost 3-hour run time. Now I don’t mean this to necessarily be a bad thing. It’s just of all of Nolan’s films to date this one feels the most substantial and headiest. Certainly his most challenging. For me personally, I always value substance over style. Which this movie has both of. However, I found it difficult to follow at times and dare I say almost found it too challenging. There was so much going on within the narrative that I often times was wondering if my mind wasn’t working hard enough that the movie demanded of me. Or if it was just something that was over my head. Whichever really was the case, I let that thought go about a third of the way through, around the 2nd act, which is when the space travel truly begins. And like the great Science Fiction films that have explored space and beyond. Films like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), Philip Kaufmann’s “The Right Stuff” (1983), Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” (1995), Danny Boyle’s 2007 “Sunshine” (which I found myself drawing a lot of comparisons to), and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” (2013), it brings its own unique approach to how we look at space travel. Once Cooper and crew reach space, they go through a series of events that contain some of the most dazzlingly stunning images I have seen put onto film since Terrence Malick’s “creationism” sequence from “The Tree of Life” (2011). The first descreption of it that came to mind as I walked out of the sold out theater afterwards was a “visual splendor”. Nolan and his crew of special effects experts do a fantastic job at presenting us with some of the most spellbinding visual effects I’ve seen since James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009). Besides the visual grandeur of the whole thing, it also contains a pretty authentic feeling and emotional subplot involving unforeseen time passing and Cooper’s 2 children, played by Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain, both of whom are always superb as they are here. In what at points almost falls into over-dramatic territory, Nolan and his writing partner brother John seem to think to know their audience is much too intelligent to allow that to happen. So besides the gorgeousness of the whole proceeding, this subplot was what I found to be the second standout. It tugs at the audience’s heartstrings without feeling contrived or trite. Lastly, which was my one biggest criticism of the piece, and one in which I think I hinted at above, was that it felt a bit overwrought in the ideas and themes in which it presents. Like it could have maybe been dumbed down a bit (and I almost never say that about a film) as I can imagine a lot of people who see this film, like me, are going to be slightly confused at times by the sheer amount of material and shifts in story that go on within it. I can imagine a lot of people will preach knowing what they thought the film was about but having a hard time articulating what exactly that is. But like I also hinted above, if you can leave out that element of trying to follow every little shift in the story or scientific jargon that is spoken (which there is quite a bit of), you should find yourself sitting back and marveling at the eye candy and incredibly innovative space thrill ride that only someone of Nolan’s caliber of filmmaker can take you on.

[B]

*Also, as an added disclaimer – I can’t stress enough the importance of seeing this on the big screen. To not do so would be doing yourself a big disservice.

A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Fury’ 10.25.14

I’ve grown quite find of Brad Pitt as an actor in the last almost decade or so. So much so that I consider him to be one of the top 3 best working actors in the business. If you think about the list of directors and performances he’s put in over the past 8-10 years or so there’s really nothing you can do but just admire the guy.  Since 2006 he’s worked with Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu in “Babel” (a film he would go onto pick up a Best Supporting Actor nomination for), Andrew Dominik in 2007’s “The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (still one of my favorite Pitt performances), both the Coen Brothers and David Fincher in “Burn After Reading” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 2008, to Quentin Taratino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), to 2011’s 1-2 punch of both Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” (the latter of which would see him garnering his first Best Actor nomination), to working with Dominik again in 2012’s “Killing Them Softly”, to Marc Forster in last year’s highly entertaining and surprisingly very good “World War Z”. And finally topping it off the same year with a small but memorable role in Steve McQueen’s Best Picture Oscar winner “12 Years a Slave” (which he would also win his first ever Oscar for Producing). Pitt has gone on to reach such a status in my eyes that at this point in his career I will simply see a film solely based on the fact that he’s in it. And I can only say that about a very few actors.

David Ayer’s “Fury” follows a lot of the same movie tropes as a lot of American made War films. It involves a group of ragtag soldiers who are part of a tank unit led by Pitt. The group is deep in German territory at the height of the Second World War. Where at the point depicted in the film, the Germans are taking the upper hand. Pitt and this ragtag group of soldiers (including an always reliable Michael Pena and Shia LeBeouf, an actor who at least in my eyes, is gaining quite of credibility since his “Transformers” days). Their tank comes under fire and it’s on the brink of breaking down, only for Pitt and his company to escape and then meet up with whatever little reserves that are left where they wind up geographically in the heart of Nazi Germany. One of their men faces an untimely death, and they’re forced to take on a young, inexperienced, and afraid soldier named Norman (Logan Lerman), with little to no combat experience as his replacement. Essentially the rest of the film is shown through the eyes of him as Pitt, his company, and “Fury” (the name of their tank) as they try and take over one town to the next in a series of truly visceral and epic battle scenes. In fact, this movie contains some of the best scenes of war, particularly that of tank warfare, that I’ve seen since the all too often overlooked and underappreciated 2007 film “Lebanon”. A film about another group of soldiers confined to a tank with no way out other than to fight for their lives.

I found myself totally captivated by this film and thought the war scenes and depictions of battle to me were not only thrilling but top notch. It’s essentially a series of one battle after the next depicted in the utmost intense and and sense of realism. It really nails the horrors of war and while I’ve heard one of the criticisms of the piece is that it’s simply too violent, I didn’t find myself necessarily finding that to be the case. It’s violent because this was a violent period in history where the lives of many men were lost. My second accolade has to do with Pitt’s performance itself. It’s reminiscent of old classic Hollywood actors like a John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart. So much so that at times I thought of Bogart’s 1943 War film “Sahara”. Where even though you know he is being depicted as this pro-American, patriotic, and mentally and physically strong leader. If like with that film you are able to overlook the stereotypes of the characters (which were intentional then and intention here) behind it you’ll see yet another bravura Brad Pitt performance. He totally envelops himself in the character which I found to be not only completely convincing but effective as well. Sure some of the men in his unit, specifically that of Pena and the other Hispanic man feel like blatient stereotypes. However I was able to overlook this because of the incredibly captivating scenes of tank warfare that had both me and the entire almost sold out audience I saw it with highly entertained, challenged, and brought on a visceral action packed thrill ride. Complete with what I found to be a brilliant closing shot “Fury” is one of those big budget, at first seemingly run-of-the-mill crop of American War films that turns out to be something much greater than it should have been.

[B+]